Honeck and Mørk Show Two Composers in a Fresh Light

United StatesUnited States Prokofiev, Dvořák: Truls Mørk (cello), San Francisco Symphony / Manfred Honeck (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.10.2018. (HS)

Prokofiev — Sinfonia Concertante in E minor for Cello and Orchestra

Dvořák — Symphony No.8 in G major

There was absolutely nothing reticent or shy about Manfred Honeck’s conducting, or cellist Truls Mørk’s playing for that matter, in their first of three concerts with the San Francisco Symphony.

Honeck seemed intent on bringing out maximum contrasts in both Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Even sections with hushed dynamics brimmed with intensity, and Honeck’s dramatic style showed off the musicians’ prowess. Most importantly, all this framed the composers’ efforts in a fresh light.

As a soloist, Mørk puts formidable technique in the service of not only getting the notes right but also articulating what the composer might have actually intended to say. His Domenico Montagnana cello speaks with clarity throughout its range and filled Davies Hall with rich sound even in quieter passages of Prokofiev’s 1950 work, a rewrite for Mstislav Rostropovich of a failed concerto. Mørk met the formidable technical challenges, which call upon the cellist to strum four-note chords one moment, make the bow dance in complex rhythmic passages in the next, and at other times, ascend to the instrument’s stratosphere.

The cello is hardly ever silent in this tour-de-force, yet Mørk tirelessly made it all seem natural and worry-free. With Honeck shaping well-considered balances even in the louder sections, the audience hardly missed a note — a rare occurrence in pieces for cello and orchestra. The cellist coaxed maximum sweetness out of Prokofiev in his lyrical mode — which is most of the time — but he also embraced thorny moments when they came along.

The broad second movement, marked ‘Allegro giusto,’ rollicked with terrific momentum, interrupted only by a long solo passage that Mørk made into a mini-sonata of its own before Honeck seamlessly slipped the orchestra’s return into the flow. The second big solo moment for the cello, shortly after the opening of the final movement, sparked a steadily increasing rhythmic thrust that brought a sharply formed finish.

Honeck’s search for contrast showed up right away in the Dvořák symphony. He paced the introduction, marked Andante, slower than usual, which only made the sudden appearance of the Allegro con brio all the brighter. Principal flutist Tim Day showed flair, his solo only the first of many moments when individual presence carried the momentum forward. Among those were timely interjections from principal clarinet Carey Bell and English horn Russ deLuna, principal horn Robert Ward, and to launch the finale, a brilliant unison fanfare from principal trumpet Mark Inouye and associate principal Aaron Schuman.

Texturally, louder passages emerged with a full-throated gleam and softer ones floated on silk or velvet. Fast tempos galloped, and slower tempos breathed gently. The sound always retained a richness that suited the composer’s style, even as Honeck coaxed these contrasts, adding up to a richly deserved standing ovation.

Harvey Steiman

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